Up, up and a way up!

There is usually a turning point in life of an athlete that commits them to lead an athletic lifestyle. A certain event, game, motion, or feat that makes them realize that this is what they were born to do.

Ask most athletes and they’ll most likely be able to recall one specific time when they came to realize their passion in full. For me, my athletic flower has blossomed several times during several different sports, but one particular achievement tends to stand out clearly in my mind.

At 13, I was still riding stoker with my dad on a tandem bicycle. It was the first Maryville College bicycle trip I was able to go on since I was a little tike, and so it would be the first year that I was expected to actually pull my own weight and pedal. Our first day: the Cherrohala Skyway.

In case you don’t know, that’s the highway with the highest average elevation east of the Mississippi. In other words, a (darn) big hill. A 22-mile hill, to be exact. I’m not talking about a slow, gradual, sloping hill; I’m talking a writhing, spiraling, mountain road that winds mercilessly all the way up to heaven.

I didn’t think I’d make it. I really didn’t. I started out the day just fine, climbing slowly and steadily up the first five or six miles. We’d stop, rest, eat and get back on again, climbing about four or five miles at a time. I kept waiting to poop out, to bag it and say, “You all are crazy; I’m done” and hitch a ride in our support van. But I didn’t.

Something inside me just wouldn’t let me quit. I was too determined, too focused, too … enthralled to stop. It’s not that I wasn’t tired. I’m not going to lie. I was freakin’ exhausted, and I was convinced that my legs were really ticked off at my body and that they were working just out of sheer resistance to pain.

That was the first time I’d ever really ever experienced “the zone,” the endorphin rush and the sheer ecstasy that comes with being athletic. After I’d reached the summit at 5,390 feet, I vowed silently that this was going to be my life. It had to be. I couldn’t live without it.

Communication is key to human existence. Without it, we’d all be wondering around thumping each other with clubs and babbling incessantly like cavemen. Not only would we be lonely, but also unable to survive. As independent as we would like to think we are, we still depend on others to a certain extent, as we should.

Communication is essential to sports as well. In sports like volleyball and basketball, the need for constant communication is obvious. However, in traditionally individual sports like cycling and running, communication is equally critical. Runners and cyclists like to think they can do it all on their own. They would love to think that they are indestructible and can handle anything that their sport can throw at them. Being both a runner and a cyclist, I know different.

Running and cycling are just as much a team effort as volleyball. For instance, cyclists have a very efficient system of communication. A group of riders rides one directly behind the other, tires mere inches apart, pedaling at a constant rate to accommodate all the riders. Occasionally, a gap will develop, in which case one rider shouts, “GAP!” to alert the riders ahead. The pace will slow to reconnect the chain. Similarly, commands like “Car back” indicate cars coming around the pack.

This phenomenon is called a pace line, and it’s a really moving experience (no pun intended) to be a part of one. I found myself in several over the course of Maryville College’s annual spring break bicycle trip. A line of as many as seven or eight, or as few as two or three, rode together, taking turns “pulling,” or taking the wind, bringing up the rear, alerting obstacles and always looking out for each other. It absolutely blew me away how such an independent sport could be so team-oriented.

I know that I couldn’t have completed the nearly 400-mile trek to St. Simon’s Island or the 100-mile day without the support of my fellow riders. Even though cyclists and runners don’t say much, just knowing that they’re there, that constant presence of another person, perhaps as equally insane as you are, is quite comforting.

Communicating is more than words. It’s also less than words. It can almost be too powerful to be expressed through words. Communicating is letting your teammate know where you are or what you want. It’s a special signal. It’s a simple gesture. It’s…just being there, existing.

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